Lulu Mitshabu tells us to close our eyes. 'Imagine your brothers, sisters, your mothers, your nieces, your nephews, your children, everybody that makes you smile, the good time you're having,' she says.
'Open your eyes. The time that you took closing your eyes and thinking of your people, imagine now everybody you thought of disappeared from the face of this earth just in that minute. That's my life in the DRC.'
There is stunned silence. It's lunchtime in Sydney and we are sitting in the shadow of the beautiful Harbour Bridge, a symbol of wealth, progress and equal access for all. In Lulu's homeland, the ironically-named Democratic Republic of Congo, it is not yet dawn; soon the cockerels will begin crowing and the women will rise to start their work for the day, stoking fires, collecting water, tending crops, dodging the men — soldiers and militia and civilians — who will almost certainly threaten to rape and abuse them.
Northwest of there, in Nigeria, parents of around 300 girls abducted in the past month by Islamist group Boko Haram will have in all likelihood spent the night sleepless, wondering in the agonisingly slow pre-dawn hours how it is that evil is allowed to reign in a world as powerful and learned as ours.
It's a stark contrast and one that can no longer be used as an excuse by westerners who turn a blind eye to the evils that millions of people — girls and women in particular — endure in countries far removed from our own. It is also a reminder of our willingness to be led by the media when deciding which events and atrocities to solemnise, rather than speaking out about all issues — and brainstorming responses to them — even when they're not trending on social media or being glamorised by celebrities.
Weeks after the schoolgirls' mass abduction (which was preceded by the even more horrific, and far less well-publicised massacre of Nigerian schoolboys by Boko Haram), the incident has become an overnight cause célèbre, with people like Michelle Obama, Ellen DeGeneres and Angelina Jolie calling for their release.
But there's a danger that this Johnny-come-lately style of advocacy does more harm than good to the cause of subjugated women: by elevating media-determined 'worthy' causes (which will be dropped as soon as the next fad comes around), slapping ourselves on the wrist for our initial tardiness and then patting ourselves on the back for demanding that Boko Haram #bringbackourgirls, we diminish the horrors great and small that are endured on a daily basis by women whose stories we'll never get to hear.
Instead, we should be taking Lulu's advice and harnessing our privilege to speak out at every opportunity for those women who have yet to achieve the equality that we in the West take for granted.
It would be foolish to believe that female liberation can occur in a vacuum: as long as there are girls and women being brutalised in the DRC, schoolgirls being sold into slavery in Nigeria's border regions, girls around the world being subjected to female genital mutilation and women being supressed by religious ideology, then the acquisition of our own freedoms — flawed as they are — is a hollow victory indeed.
As Lulu says, '[The Nigerian abduction] is an issue we need to address as global citizens. We need to be part of the solution, not the problem. The Nigerian president [said] it's not just happening in Nigeria but everywhere. Why are we not stopping it? It's been going on for such a long time. We need to stand up and demand justice.'
How do we do this? How do we ensure that generations of Australian women — many of whom have no idea that the rights they enjoy were not always guaranteed but were hard-won by their foremothers — don't allow such atrocities to occur on their watch? Most importantly, says Lulu, we must nurture a deep awareness among ourselves of the discrepancies that still exist in the world.
'In our family court in the DRC, it's clearly stated that men are the head of the family, and women must obey. Women have no right to land, no right to property, you need your husband's permission to go away, and girls get married at 15 years of age,' she explains.
'Just picture this: 80 per cent of the population in the Congo lives below the poverty line. And women suffer more than men because they don't own anything. So when I compare the life of women here in Australia to the life of women in the Congo, it's such a breeze.'
It's precisely this relatively breezy existence that empowers Australian women to advocate for their sisters on the other side of the globe through NGOs, by lobbying governments and peace-building organisations, fundraising, or coming up with their own unique solutions.
And they are guaranteed to succeed because it's been proven that when women are consulted and involved in peace-building, says Lulu, 'things work. When women are not involved things just fall through.'
Catherine Marshall is a mother of three, a journalist and travel writer.
Lulu Mitshabu came to Australia as a refugee with her husband and children in 1991. She is Caritas Australia's Program Coordinator for the Democratic Republic of Congo and its Diocesan Engagement Coordinator. She was addressing Caritas' inaugural Women for the World event aimed at raising awareness and funds for disadvantaged women around the world. To find out how you can help go to www.caritas.org.au
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12 May 2014
Horror upon horror! It seems that more humans wish to make the world a WORSE place than those whom we know are striving to make it a BETTER place. "Rain falls on good and bad people. The sun shines on just and unjust people". Rabbi Yeshua the Nazarine informs us that our Universe is totally indifferent to our welfare.
12 May 2014
Thanks for this excellent piece. It is worthwhile to draw attention to these egregious situations is essential, although such reporting mostly falls on deaf ears. Human rights abuses are rife in Congo (it's self-desihation as a 'democratic republic' is an abomination), which is rich in minerals. Mining occurs under shocking conditions, yet the minerals are sold on international markets, enriching a few while the majority, including many mine labourers, suffer. Amnesty International has reported on this. Much of the world is indifferent to the suffering that is out of sight. Meanwhile, we in affluent countries blithely enjoy goods (and the components of goods) which are produced at the expense of nameless, faceless 'Others'.
12 May 2014
Females won't have freedom even in the west until we get rid of the misogynist catholic church that insists on treating women like second class citizens.
13 May 2014
Apologies for errors in my earlier hastily written post. I checked back to see others' responses, and the dearth of comments is indicative of the level of interest in remote strangers, especially in Africa.
13 May 2014
Myrna, you state that "the dearth of comments is indicative of the level of interest in remote strangers, especially in Africa." You may be right, but another, perhaps equally prevalent reason for silence is the 'campaign fatigue' that sets in after 2 or 3 decades working through NGOs like Caritas, Oxfam and Amnesty International, only to observe the world getting worse, not better. I continue to financially support these and other international NGOs working to make the world a better place; but to participate in campaigns, writing letters, talking to social groups, participating in street demos, sorry; I'm too tired.
13 May 2014
I believe the dearth of comments/ interests is indicative of the futility of making comments on a website in Australia about remote places in Africa - or anywhere else in the world where's there's no political will to do anything. Apart form urging the US and Britain to send in the SAS paratroopers to rescue the girls, what else can be done in a country where even the president doesn't seemed to be too bothered about it, and the perpetrators Boko Haram are corruptly allied to the Nigerian armed forces anyway? IT's obviously an act of evil - nothing to do with Islam as am ethical/moral religion, but Islam as a political/terror tool. Send in the SAS? WHat else is there to say?
26 May 2014
Hi there, I read your article written here about your country, and how true it is. I am lucky enough to live in New Zealand, a eurpean New Zealander, and I could not agree more as to how lucky, even NZ woman are. I too have seen the poverty and deprivation that exists in your country, as well as others. Peru, Brazil, Chile, and even our own country in some areas. I wish I could just feed, clothe and give help to everyone in that position, as I feel very deeply for those people that suffer so. I have. A friend once said to me, "Anne as much as you would like, you have to stop taking the world on your shoulders, you can help some, but not all". Believe me I used to get myself so upset and hurt, at the way others were treated and I could do nothing, only pray, as I have been in a poverty situation myself at one stage in my life, and I have never been able to help. It breaks my heart to see how others are treated.